If you want to quickly determine if a white person in the United States is comfortably racist, I’d recommend a single question. Ask them, “Should our nation pay reparations to black people for the enslavement, mistreatment and economic exploitation of them and their ancestors over the past four hundred years?” If they immediately reject this proposition, you can be fairly confident you’ve identified a comfortable racist. On the other hand, if they’re willing to give this question serious consideration, you’ve probably identified an ethically responsible and racially conscious white person. It’s really that simple.
There is simply no compelling argument against the payment of reparations. The studies and research have been done. The historians, economists and ethicists have spoken. While there can and should be considerable debate over how reparations should be made, any white person who argues against reparations is either ignorant, immoral, racist or all of the above. Additionally, if you encounter someone opposed to paying reparations, you can be fairly certain they will offer one or all of the following three arguments…
“I have no responsibility. Neither I nor my ancestors owned slaves.”
Though I doubt most of these people have the genealogical support for their claim, such evidence would be irrelevant. The economic advantages of slavery were not limited to slave owners. Though the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States in 1840 was in the Mississippi valley, the wealth created by slavery flowed north to the textile mills, banks and, ultimately, to every white family. Cotton was the single greatest economic driver in early American history. Without the millions of hours of slave labor provided by black people, the American economy would not have thrived.
The affluence generated by this labor, though unevenly divided amongst the white population, was limited to white people. You didn’t have to be a slave owner to benefit from the enslavement of black people. You only had to be white. Indeed, the recognition of this reality fueled the strong southern support for defending slavery during the Civil War. Though only a quarter of southern whites actually owned slaves, all of them were keenly aware of the benefits they produced. Indeed, at the time of the Civil War, slaves constituted the single greatest financial asset in the United States.
While it is certainly possible to argue that some white people benefitted more from slavery than others, it is difficult to argue that even the poorest white person has received no benefit. And it is irrefutable that the chief producers of all of this immense wealth – black people – received absolutely no financial benefit from their labor. More damning, in 1865 when they were freed from legal bondage, they were paid no back wages. Most black people were left so destitute that they quickly became sharecroppers, which was often even more economically oppressive than slavery.
For these reasons, the huge disparities in accumulated wealth and economic status between white people and black people today have their roots in this historic injustice. Those who argue against reparations because they or their ancestors didn’t own slaves are like people who fill their homes with property they know was stolen from others. They may not be thieves, but they are hardly examples of responsibility and integrity. When forced to face this reality, they usually offer this argument.
“That was wrong, but it was long ago. I haven’t directly benefitted from racial injustice.”
Once we’ve established the incredible injustice of the past, we have two choices. If we’re ethical white people, we take responsibility for the injustices of our ancestors. If we’re immoral and racist, we throw our ancestors under the bus. We argue for our innocence and blamelessness. We pretend the oppression of black people ended in 1865. We ignore the evidence that most white people living today have directly benefitted from racial injustice.
As lucrative as slavery was, our ancestors weren’t the greatest beneficiaries of the oppression of black people. The single greatest economic increase in American wealth was not in the 1800s. It happened in the years after World War II, between 1950 and 1970. Billions and billions of dollars of wealth were created. Indeed, this period marked the high water mark of the American middle class. A vast majority of this wealth was intentionally limited by governmental policy to white people.
If you are white and bought a home or grew up in a home purchased between 1934 and 1977, you likely benefitted from government programs that awarded millions of tax dollars solely to white people. If you inherited a home purchased during those years, you reaped the spoils of racial injustice. If you, your parents or grandparents went to college between 1944-1964, you likely benefitted from government programs that excluded black people from millions of dollars in educational grants. If you, your parents or grandparents have received Social Security benefits, you have likely benefitted from a program that initially excluded up to 65% of all black people. It is difficult to find a single government policy between 1877 – when the Reconstruction ended – and 1977 that didn’t give preferential treatment to white people or exclude black people.
Indeed, most white people today are recipients of one of the greatest governmental affirmative action programs in history. Between 1934 and 1977, billions of tax dollars were funneled exclusively or primarily to white people. Since any argument for equity would require an equal distribution of this government largesse, we can fairly say that the greatest recipients of racial injustice are not long dead slave owners, but middle class white people today. When forced to face this reality, those who oppose reparations usually default to more obviously racist rhetoric.
“Well, that wasn’t fair, but what can you do. You can’t just give black people cash. They’d just waste it.” (Or some other generally disparaging remark about black people.)
Once we’ve established the incredible injustice of the present, we have two choices. If we’re ethical white people, we take responsibility for the injustices of our present system and seek to rectify them. If we’re immoral and racist, we throw black people under the bus. In arguing for their inadequacy and incompetency, we verify our ancestry. Like our forefathers, we justify the oppression of black people with the same paternal racist rhetoric. We miss the obvious. Once you’ve acknowledged the resources were stolen, what they do with any compensation is irrelevant. It’s their money.
How reparations are paid shouldn’t be up to white people. I can’t imagine any court in the land that would leave the terms of compensation up to the thieves. What we must do as a country is determine an appropriate amount of compensation for the damages done to generations of black people. That’s going to be expensive. And it should be. The debt needs to be paid back with interest.
It is time for white people who are ethically responsible and racially conscious to voice our support for the payment of reparations. It is time for our nation to finally pay its debts to the black people upon whose backs we’ve built the most prosperous nation in human history. It is time to ask black people to tell us how they want us to make these payments. It is far past time. And when some white people complain of the injustice of it all, we who are ethically responsible and racially conscious must identify that opposition for what it has always been – racist and immoral.
(Special thanks to Ta-Nehesi Coates’ for his essay, “The Case For Reparations,” which should be required reading for every white person in America. My short post is a poor reflection of this masterful essay.)